Northern Ballet of Leeds, England, toured its triple-bill program “Generations” at the Royal Opera House in London last week. The company’s director, Frederico Bonelli, said the title reflects the program’s composition of an established piece by Hans van Manen alongside two new works, one by Tiler Peck of New York City Ballet and the other by Benjamin Ella of The Royal Ballet.

Ella has described his ballet Joie de Vivre as “a poem or epigram of human feelings, emotions, and connections” that he hopes will “send you home humming romantic tunes, filled with the joy of life.” (There is nothing to analyze in such a Hallmark-card description of dance; Marius Petipa surely would have said the same about his Sleeping Beauty, The Nutcracker, and Coppelia.) Joie de Vivre features three couples and is indeed “romantic,” although to claim it celebrates the joy of life is an overstatement. The thirty-minute ballet depicts adolescent courtship, portraying what a middle-school playground would look like if the kids weren’t glued to their cellphones. The couples engage in dance versions of games like tag and hide-and-seek, gleefully chasing one another on the empty stage. The girls huddle for a pas de trois as if convening to gossip about their dates. The choreography is anti-climactic, but that’s how teenage romance goes: even briefly making eye contact with that super-cute boy in your math class is enough to render the whole day a success.

Kirica Takahashi and Jun Ishii in Benjamin Ella’s Joie de Vivre. Photo: Kyle Baines.

The production could have benefited from more rehearsal. At times, I wondered whether the choreography was intended to be performed in canon, or if the dancers were unsynchronized because they didn’t know the correct counts. The couples struggled to navigate some awkward transitions in between lifts; likewise, one ballerina missed steps, eyed her peers for choreography clues, fell out of turns (nearly knocking out her fellow dancers), and slipped during an entrance. Despite some obvious stumbles, the ballet is pleasant, albeit unassisted by its plain score of chamber pieces by Jean Sibelius and neither inspired nor inspiring.

After Joie de Vivre’s dancers fall in juvenile love, Adagio Hammerklavier’s fall to the ground. Hans van Manen, Hammerklavier’s choreographer, called the plotless 1973 ballet “an ode to deceleration.” Van Manen found profundity in simplicity, and perhaps the ballet is also an ode to stillness: three couples in unadorned pale costumes begin with subtle but sudden movements to a particularly slow tempo of the Adagio from Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 29 as a white sheet flutters behind them. It’s haunting, as though the dancers have been reduced to only their skeletons.

Dancers of Northern Ballet in Hans van Manen’s Adagio Hammerklavier. Photo: Kyle Baines.

But bones without muscles cannot stand. The dance critic Zoë Anderson noted that Adagio Hammerklavier was made at a time when choreographers were experimenting with complex lifts; presumably, some unfortunate mistrials resulted in women on the floor rather than in their partner’s arms. Van Manen must have then asked the question: what if this falling could be beautiful? His dancers thus collapse into the fetal position, but the audience doesn’t gasp or shudder since we know it is intended. They droop to the floor in grand pliés, splits, and lunges. Adagio Hammerklavier is essentially a castrated forerunner to Jiří Kylián’s Petite Mort (1991), stripped of sensuality but rich with intimacy.

After Northern Ballet indulges us with simplicity, we are presented with chaos in Intimate Pages. The ballet intrigued because of who was offstage; the American superstar ballerina Tiler Peck choreographed it as her first piece for a European company. Of the score, Leoš Janáček’s String Quartet “Intimate Letters”, Peck sas that she hears “yearning, ecstasy, struggle, [and] elation” and that she wants to “discover and explore the human emotion and those feelings through dance.” But Peck fails in Pages to capture the intense passion of Janáček’s composition, which is sometimes described as a “manifesto on love” that reflected his relationship with Kamila Stösslová, a married woman nearly forty years his junior.

Kirica Takahashi in Tiler Peck’s Intimate Pages. Photo Kyle Baines.

Peck’s piece opens in silence with a lone male dancer slowly building his energy and exploding into a tour en lair, cueing the intense quartet and dancers, who circle around him as he reaches into the distance. Intimate Pages has passion but little intimacy: three women lay their hands on the male dancer, and he looks around cluelessly. After being dragged away by the swarming dancers, he follows the girl teasing him and nearly kisses her. Throughout the twenty-minute ballet, the leading man undergoes something like a midlife crisis in which anger is interrupted only by lust.

Yet Peck leaves us questioning why he’s so tormented. Do his romantic pursuits prompt his frustration, or does he seek erotic escape from his frustration? The dancers apparently weren’t given clear guidance on which emotions they were meant to embody; they offered a mix of smiles and blank stares. The male lead was executed brilliantly by the former West End star Harris Beattie, but the story around him lacks any detectable coherence. The viewer thus grows as frustrated as him.

The three ballets are all worth watching, but only Adagio Hammerklavier is worth remembering. It is not the type of performance that you sit in the theater and think about; it is the type you’ll think about long after you leave.

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